From Frustration to Transformation: The Public Church Framework as a Process

This week’s story is written by Stephen Richards, a congregational learning partner at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Steve writes about his transformation throughout the process of practicing the Public Church Framework. 

Ever had an argument in the car with your partner about the “right way” to get somewhere? My wife and I frequently have such “debates”, and it often boils down to this: she likes to plan how to get somewhere in advance, whereas I’m more of a “wing-it” guy. She likes to pre-navigate potential traffic snarls and find the most economical route to get somewhere, whereas I know where I need to go, have a vague idea of how to get there, and if there are any holdups along the way I’ll navigate my way around them based on what looks like the best option at the time. Needless to say, my wife and I often find driving together a frustrating experience.

 

church with people outside
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

This past year, working with the Riverside Innovation Hub has felt a lot like driving with my wife. When St Luke’s first started this journey and I was invited to be part of the team, I was excited about the idea of working to get more young people to come to church. Of course I wanted more young people coming to church; I wanted lots of people to come to church. However, I quickly began to realize that this was not the point. So I pushed back. If this is not about getting people into church, then what is it about? I remember regularly expressing a sense of frustration to our coach that I simply had no idea what we were trying to achieve. The “goal” was to find ways to connect with young adults in our community, but how to do that and what that might look like was opaque. “So what” and “What next” questions dominated my thinking. I found the process frustrating. I wanted a road map. I wanted a planned route from Point A to Point B. The trouble is, that’s not the way this works. You see, when you start asking “What is God up to in our community?” you’re heading into uncharted territory. 

 

For too long I’d been looking for God inside the church building, and many “solutions” for how to address the dearth of young adults in our churches often begin there. If only our services were more exciting, if only we had better programming and the like. Using such reasoning we also talk about how God is or is not working in our midst. More people in church equals God is working, and vice versa. But instead, we were told to reflect on Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, and imagine this flowing out into our community. I liked the image, but continued to push back. I made the point that if the river was flowing from the temple then surely this means the river is flowing out from our church building? Our coach patiently allowed me to navigate my way through this. 

When I joined this project I thought it was about connecting young adults to God in church. However, as we began to follow the river (both inside and outside of our community), I suddenly realized that it was about a different kind of connecting. In fact, it was me who was connecting with God as I began to realize my entire understanding of mission had been grounded in the notion that there was nothing of God going on outside “in the world.” Sitting inside a church building, I’d been staring at the walls wondering why more people weren’t inside with us, rather than going outside and asking them. The walls were preventing me from engaging with people. They were a physical barrier between our community and our neighbors. Whereas the veil separating us from God had been torn down in Christ, and in the years since then we had been physically and theologically putting it back up.

 

As we walked the three art forms, I became to see where God is at work outside the church. I should not have been surprised, because God is always at work everywhere! How do I know this? Because God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not:

 

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).

 

Once I began to realize that church is not the Ground Zero, the modus operandi of God’s activity in any community, I began to realize that the roadmap of mission I had been using had been leading me away from young adults; leading me further inside the church building (where they are not), instead of outside and into our neighborhood (where they are).

 

As we continued with Interpretation and Discernment work, I sensed that not only I had changed, but the team had also had a transformation. Our focus had shifted. We had begun to dream and imagine how we might go and meet people, rather than sitting in church waiting for them to come to us. Jesus told us to “Go,” and we were going. We began to look at ways we were already connecting with our neighbors; the Montessori School in our church building was an obvious one, but also the green space out front. We learned that people were using the chairs we had placed out there, they were tying ribbons to the Peace Pole and using the food box. We decided to focus on that as space as a place where God was present; Holy ground where we could start wading into the river.

people talk in groups outside
Folks from the congregation and the neighborhood gather at St. Luke’s “front porch” to be together and share ice cream.

And so we began. It was the start of summer and one of our team suggested we might offer people free ice cream after church on Sunday. So we did. We named it Ice Cream Sunday. For three months we stood outside the church eating ice cream, and inviting our neighbors to join us. In doing so we met lots of people and got to know their stories. We got to tell them our stories, but we never used this as a recruitment tool; just a way of showing love to those around us, you know, doing the very thing Jesus told us to do (Matthew 2:39). And as we did this week after week, relationships began to form. Barriers came down. We began to wade into the river; first ankle deep, then knee deep and finally waist deep. Some people came back just to hang out with us; people who had never stepped inside our church building. And as we listened to their stories we realized that God was at work in their lives and in our community. In fact, God had always been working in our community, we’d just never taken the time to go outside and listen. But now we were outside, and listening, and starting to see the walls come down. We’d torn up the roadmap, and with the Spirit’s leading had started to “wing-it”…

The Healing Power of Dirt

This week we hear from Ellie Roscher, a congregational learning partner at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Ellie shares a story about the mutual transformation that comes from listening to and empowering young adult leaders. 

 

plants and welcome sign
The Garden at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Siri, a talented and emerging folk singer, spends significant time on the road playing music. In between tours, she works at the front desk at Bethlehem even though she is skeptical of institutional religion and questions the existence of God. 

About a year ago, Siri found herself in a cycle of despair. She was feeling adrift and unsure of where her community was. And she was feeling cynical, angry and overwhelmed about climate change. She could hear the earth moaning and see it crying out. One night, in response to her lament a friend kindly offered, “Would it help to do something about it?” 

Siri took the challenge to heart. She floated her idea of starting a community garden to me and some other folks at Bethlehem. Yes, yes, yes. We helped her flush out her vision and celebrated with her when she received a generous Foundation Grant. Then it was time to begin. 

At the Riverside Innovation Hub, our guiding text is from Ezekiel 47. In it, we are led away from the temple to deeper water. Along the riverbank there are lush trees with fruit for food and leaves for healing. Siri had a prophetic vision to grow a garden outside the walls of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, a large and resourced church, had not yet leveraged its voice and power to address climate change in real and meaningful ways. We recognized Siri’s passion and vision as beautiful, and we met her there, downriver, to put her plan to action. 

Planting a seed requires the audacity of hope. Tilling the soil quiets the mind, brings peace to the heart, and slows time just a bit. Weeding is a spiritual practice. Watching seed transform is a living metaphor. Fresh air shakes the dust from our souls. Billowing clouds invite us to look all the way up and remember that we are small.

flowers
The late-fall blooms of the garden.

Siri was ready to move from despair. Her leadership invited others to do the same. She built beds, planted seeds, watered them and tended to them. She showed up week in and week out and created a space outside the walls of Bethlehem for folks to gather. Sunday school kids came out into the sunshine to guess what sprouts would become. A neighborhood kid asked if he could help water the beds, another asked if he could have a cucumber. More neighbors, who previously did not engage started congregating when Siri and volunteers showed up to work. More congregation members lingered outside the church. 

Now, at the end of the summer, the garden has exceeded all of our expectations. It is bursting with life. The sun flowers tower over us. The pollinators bring life and vibrancy and splashes of color. We tended to the earth and it is showering us with bounty. The neighbor who was the most skeptical has thanked Siri for creating a space for folks to gather. Congregation members have thanked her for inviting them out of the sanctuary to God’s nature. 

Siri, too, has been amazed at the transformation inside of herself. She is a pastor’s kid, and she has a lot of hurt toward the Christian institution. She sees the harm the church has caused in the world. “It has felt like

gigantic tectonic plates shifting in my being,” she said. “It has been truly transformational to go from overwhelmed to empowered. And to grow a garden on the grounds of a church has been important for me. I’m not ready to worship yet, but growing flowers and vegetables here and having the community rally around me has ushered in healing.” 

garden boxesBethlehem’s innovation team recognized Siri’s vision and leadership. We built our vision around the growing garden and our growing partnership with folks doing conservation and reforestation in the cloud forest of Guatemala. Siri will be one of the young adults traveling to Guatemala come January, after our garden is harvested. She kept asking me if I should send someone else instead, someone who has more clarity about God and church. I think of Ezekiel and smile. “No, you are perfect.” 

The garden has been a blessing. A physical reminder of God’s abundance. A place to gather and listen to the soil and and remember whose we are. It brings dignity to get down on our knees and get dirty. Get some earth under our fingernails. Siri said yes to an invitation to grow something new and rich and beautiful. It has given her hope. And community. Fruit for food and leaves for healing. We are all better for it. We are grateful. 

Discernment Questions for Faith Communities

Consider these questions an opportunity to engage your leadership, young adults and other key people in your community as you discern your faith community’s possible call into deeper ministry with young adults. Have some cups of coffee. Make time for a happy hour. Imagine and wonder where God is present in these questions and what that might mean for your faith community.

 

Describe your faith community’s capacity for risk-taking. What do you think your faith community is willing to risk or sacrifice in order to pursue a clear call from God?

 

How would you describe your congregation’s current relationship with young adults and attitudes about young adults?

 

Who in your faith community (staff and members) could be potential champions and leaders for a new effort to innovate ministry with young adults? Who would you want on your team to steward this partnership?

 

How are you equipped to support an additional person on-site during the coaching phase? Consider space availability, access to printing and communication systems within your congregation, culture of your staff and congregation.

 

What relationships do you have outside your faith community that could be an asset to innovating ministry with young adults?

 

Innovation by nature will involve success and failures and a willingness to take risks that may or may not produce the hoped-for outcomes. What do you imagine faithfulness to look like whether experiencing success or failure in this work with your faith community?

 

What do you sense God is already up to…

  • In your faith community?
  • In your community?
  • With young adults you know?

 

If you have the opportunity to talk (but mostly listen) with young adults consider asking them…

  • What gives you hope? What gives you anxiety?
  • What matters most to you?
  • What has or would draw you to be a part of a faith community? What has or would make you want to stay connected to a faith community?
  • What has or would make you not want to engage with a faith community? What do you think keeps your peers away?
  • How is God or faith influencing your life in the public places you live, work and play?

Innovative Ministry Partnership for Faith Communities

In order for this work to have the greatest impact, we have crafted several different pathways for interested faith communities to participate in the Innovative Ministry Partnership.

On Jan. 15, 2018 our Innovative Ministry Partnership Application was made available for faith communities with a willingness and capacity to explore their call into deeper ministry with young adults. Applications for Track 1 opportunities closed Apr. 15, 2018. Still interested? We accepts Track 3 applications on a rolling basis.

 

Innovation Ministry Partner Faith Communities – Track 1 (Closed)

  • Work with the Riverside Innovation Hub for four years from the summer of 2018 through the summer of 2022.
  • Year One (summer 2018 – summer 2019): Commit to working 15-20 hours a week with a Riverside Innovation Hub young adult Innovation Coach who will walk with your faith community through a year-long process of reimagining its ministry with young adults.
  • Submit a sub-grant proposal at the end of Year One to the Riverside Innovation Hub to receive $25,000-$30,000 for innovative approaches to ministry with young adults in your context over the following two years.
  • Years Two – Three (summer 2019 – summer 2021): Manage the funds granted to your faith community and implement your plan for engaging young adults in your context in new and innovative ways.
  • Year Four (summer 2021 – summer 2022): Work with the Riverside Innovation Hub to evaluate the three previous years of learning and creating in order to learn what worked and what did not. Faith communities will also work with the Riverside Innovation Hub to share collective findings through written projects and seminars.
  • Attend regular learning cohort meetings and trainings offered by the Riverside Innovation Hub throughout the four years of partnership with the Hub.
  • Track 1 faith communities need to be located within a 30 minute drive of Minneapolis in order to be accessible to our Innovation Coaches.

Innovative Ministry Partner Faith Communities – Track 2 (Closed)

  • Identical to Track 1 with two main differences…
  • First: In Year One, faith communities will identify their own young adult Innovation Coach from their community to guide the faith community through the work of reimagining its ministry with young adults. The faith community’s Innovation Coach will participate in training at Augsburg during the weeks of August 6-24, 2018 with other Riverside Innovation Hub coaches, be a part of an Innovation Coach cohort, and invited to attend all workshops and training aimed at equipping Innovation Coaches in Year One.
  • Second: No funding will be available to Track 2 faith communities. However, they will participate in all other aspects of the partnership with Track 1 partners. They will be included in all training & learning cohorts throughout the partnership, create their own ministry proposal in Year One, implement and adapt their ministry in Years Two and Three, and participate in evaluating the learnings in Year Four.
  • Faith communities may choose to be considered for Track 2 on their own because they believe they have the resources internally to support the work or they may be located more than 30 minutes from the Twin Cities. The Riverside Innovation Hub may choose to invite faith communities who apply to be Track 1 Partners to consider Track 2 based on the fact that there are a limited number of spots available for Track 1.

Innovative Ministry Associate Faith Communities – Track 3 (Open)

  • Some faith communities may share a deep passion and curiosity for this work but not currently be in the position to dedicate the needed resources of time, leadership, and potentially funding to commit to a four-year partnership with the Riverside Innovation Hub. An Associate Faith Community is committed to following the project, eager to be a part of the learning the flows from it, and willing to commit to being a regular participant in the learning opportunities offered through the Riverside Innovation Hub.
  • Associate Faith Communities would commit to attending Hub Seminars and workshops as the project unfolds and have opportunities to learn alongside the efforts taking shape at Partner Congregations.

 

 

 

The Research Begins!

Our research began on Sunday, October 22, 2017. We are conducting site visits at 12 different congregations across the Twin Cities who have been identified as communities of faith engaged in effective ministry with young adults. We are seeking to learn from them by observing their ministry with young adults, conducting focus groups with their active young adults, interviewing key leaders, and surveying their entire congregations. We will conduct these site visits throughout the fall and winter. We will spend the winter and spring analyzing these visits and distilling our findings down into key components of effective ministry with young adults. The visits, interviews, and analysis will be completed by an interdisciplinary research team of eight faculty members from Augsburg University including . . .

Adriane Brown, Assistant Professor and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

James A. Vela-McConnell, Professor of Sociology

Jeremy Myers, Associate Professor of Religion

Joseph Underhill, Associate Professor of Political Science

Kristen Chamberlain, Associate Professor & Chair of Communication Studies

Nishesh Chalise, Assistant Professor of Social Work

Stacy R. Freiheit, Associate Professor of Psychology

Terrance Kwame-Ross, Associate Professor of Education

What do we mean by “effective” ministry?

Our research team will seek a deeper understanding of how congregations and other faith communities are effectively engaging young adults. Our hope is to learn from those who have developed effective practices, systems, and communities in order to share what they have learned with other faith communities who are seeking to improve their ministry with young adults.

Interdisciplinarity

Before we begin to define effective engagement and describe our methodology, it is important to highlight our team’s commitment to interdisciplinarity. The life of faith cannot only be studied theologically, nor can the dynamics of a faith community or congregation. Christianity confesses belief in an incarnational God. Jesus is God’s word become flesh. God’s word lives and moves among us, in this physical world. Lutheranism confesses a belief in the Deus Absconditus or the “hidden God”. This is the belief in a God whose revelation is not obvious but hidden. It is the belief that God reveals Godself to humanity in, with, and under the physical realities of life. This nature of God’s revelation demands that our inquiry be interdisciplinary.  God is to be found in the stuff of this world – nature, human community, struggles, etc. – and therefore the other disciplines shed light on the substances and phenomena in which God is present. Second, because God is hidden in these phenomena and substances, our inquiry must be theological otherwise our interpretation of the thing will be incomplete, from a theological standpoint. Therefore, in order to fully understand how communities are effectively engaging young adults in a life of faith, our inquiry must be interdisciplinary – theological and scientific (for lack of a better term right now).

Effective Engagement

We have allowed our commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry influence not only our interpretation of the data we will gather, but also our definition of important variables on the front end.  Some Christian faith communities might consider effectiveness to mean large numbers of participants, large numbers of conversions, or assimilation to a particular lifestyle condoned by the specific faith community. Our team’s understanding of effectiveness is shaped by the following commitments, which grow from our own discipline-specific theories as well as the teaching and learning culture at Augsburg University.

Our intent is not to eliminate faith communities who hold a different definition of effectiveness, but to offer other explanations for why what they are doing with young adults seems to be working and in what capacity is it (or is not) effective. A system will always behave the way the system is designed to behave, but that does not always mean the system’s effectiveness is optimal or healthy.

Therefore, effective ministry with young adults will . . .

  • Reflect an ethos, or spirit, of effectiveness indigenous to the community.
  • Take place at the intersections of faith and the arts, faith and political activism, faith and environmental stewardship, and interfaith engagement as well as other places where faith is wrapped up in active, public lives.
  • Listen deeply to their life stories in order to hear and understand the “bad news” in their lives so that “good news” might be proclaimed in word and deed. It will provide a promising alternative to a personal theory that is no longer working for them.
  • Weave together text and context in a way that results in deeper understanding of both the text and the context.
  • Learn from them, equip them, and empower them for active discipleship that is theologically aware and publicly engaged.
  • Be developmentally appropriate for those in this age category (i.e., relationships based on values, not activities; right and wrong is easier to determine at this age than in adolescence, questions and answers are more relativistic).
  • Have a strengths-based perspective that enhances the strengths that are already present in individuals and the community.
  • Produce grassroots interaction rituals, which results in “collective effervescence,” or an intensification of collective awareness, attention, experience, emotion, and energy.
  • Clearly communicate these rituals as well as the community’s stories and values along to the participants.
  • Will balance the desire to address the needs of the individual while simultaneously addressing the needs of the larger context and the world.
  • Will demonstrate a desire and ability to adapt to new members and maintain a cohesion between its inward identity and external identity.

We assume any congregation currently engaged in effective ministry with young adults has already incorporated many of these things, whether they know it or not. Effectiveness is very contextual and we try to leave room for that, but at the same time we hold some commitments which we believe should always be present. Our working definition of effective ministry will continue to grow and change throughout this study.